Why Egypt Is Upside-Down (And Why ‘North’ Is All In Our Heads)

Have you ever looked at a map of Egypt and wondered, Why is ‘Upper’ at the bottom and ‘Lower’ at the top?

But if you stop to think about it – isn’t that entirely logical? Surely the “upper” part of a river is where it flows from, because water only flows downhill, right? (What kind of camel-trampled fool would argue that water flows upwards?)

Egyptian map
Egyptian map

If you think this is a strange way to see the world, please turn this assumption on its head (where it actually belongs). Take a glance at medieval maps from the Islamic world and you’ll find what we now call “South” commanding the top of the map – including the one produced in 1154 AD by Arab geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi.

Al-Idrisi’s map was an extraordinary thing for the time – a huge, precious-metal accompaniment to a book he produced for the Norman king Roger II of Sicily. (It’s pretty common for travel-related books to get royal backing like this: centuries later the adventurer Ibn Battuta, who I previously wrote about here, will be commissioned by the Sultan of Morocco to spend a year writing up all his adventures into a single volume.)

For fifteen years al-Idrisi worked on this, not just finding & telling good stories but measuring and calculating to ensure everything fits together in a rational manner. And wow, what a thing it became:

“The mechanical genius of the author was not inferior to his erudition. The celestial and terrestrial planisphere of silver which he constructed for his royal patron was nearly six feet in diameter, and weighed four hundred and fifty pounds; upon the one side the zodiac and the constellations, upon the other – divided for convenience into segments – the bodies of land and water, with the respective situations of the various countries, were engraved.”

– S. P. Scott, History of the Moorish Empire (1904).

Accompanying the text was the map, inscribed on a disc of solid silver, weighing 300 pounds. Upon it was wrought the whole world – presented flat, but described inside the book itself as a sphere. And incredibly, al-Idrisi’s map was more or less accurate. Yes, many coastlines were misshapen from what we now know to be the case  – but the distances used were remarkably bang-on. Al-Idrisi calculated the circumference of the world to be 37,000 kilometres (22,900 mi). That’s less than 10% short of the correct figure – an incredible achievement for the time.

Map medieval
Map medieval

And yet the whole thing was upside-down. 

Even stranger to our way of thinking, many European medieval maps put east at the top. The reason? That was the direction of the Holy Land.

Hold on, I hear you thinking. What about the dictates of the natural world? What about magnetism, which was first discovered in Classical Greece? I mean, that’s easy: the arrow points to the North Pole (or close enough), so that’s how you use a compass, and so that’s the right way to rotate a map!

There’s one problem with this, and it’s nicely illustrated with the way the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) people of China used them. 

If you’ve ever seen a Han ‘compass’, it’s memorable: it looks like a spoon balanced on a plate. These weren’t navigation tools, although they used exactly the same operating principles as modern compasses. Instead, this was about divination, the quest for the most feng shui way of arranging your surroundings – and therefore your life – for optimal harmony.

(It seems they also had a secondary use by jade hunters to stop them getting lost – so even this far back, they were already being used to navigate in the modern way.)

The name of these Han Dynasty compasses is the next twist in our tale. It translates as “The South-Pointing Spoon.” To them, the “top” of a compass (the neck of the spoon) pointed towards what we know as the South magnetic pole. After all, a compass just aligns itself with the Earth’s magnetic field. It’s humans who decide which way it’s pointing.

If South-Pointing Spoons became the determining factor in orientation, a thousand years of Chinese maps might have had the south at the top. Instead, Chinese cartographers pointed maps the other way, like we do. Here’s why:

“In Chinese culture the Emperor looks south because it’s where the winds come from, it’s a good direction. North is not very good but you are in a position of subjection to the emperor, so you look up to him.”

Jerry Brotton, historian

Presumably if he had been based in the south of China, the reverse would have become true – and maybe there’s a good chance that any medieval Europeans copying Chinese navigation techniques would have learned to orient their maps with south at the top…

But no. It looks like it’s because an Emperor chose to live in one place rather than another. It’s that arbitrary.

Speaking of sailors, there is one final glimmer of hope for an objective, Nature-determined explanation to all this – and it hangs in our skies every night.

Polaris, better known as the North Star, is incredibly easy to find. Look up on a cloudless night and find the seven stars of the Plough or The Big Dipper – the constellation that’s shaped like a pan, or perhaps a spoon.

The two stars at the end facing back towards the “handle” are Merak and Dubhe (the latter’s actually a binary star – it just blurs into a single bright point at the distance we’re at). And if you trace an imaginary line from Merak to Dubhe and keep going, it’ll hit Polaris – which hovers in exactly the direction we now call North.

This “Star Of The Sea” or “Lodestar” is rightly famous for what it did for seagoing navigation. Its impact on European mapmaking cannot be understated – and probably had a lot to do with the orientation of Mercator’s influential World Map (1569), which nailed north to the top of European maps for good.

Big Dipper
Big Dipper

But what about previous ages? For example, were those ancient Chinese spoon-compasses referencing the shape of the Big Dipper – maybe suggesting that Han-Dynasty scholars also relied on Polaris in some way? Is Polaris therefore an unchanging point we could all agree on, no matter where and when we are?

Alas, this falls apart if you look back into human history. Because of precession (the gradual change in the Earth’s rotational axis over time, like the wobble in a spinning top), Polaris hasn’t always been in the same place in the sky. It’s only by the 12th Century AD that it became workable for accurate navigation – and 2,000 years from now, the tilting of the Earth will have knocked it out of its present position once more.

Also, Polaris is just one of a number of pole stars through history. Our current South Star is Polaris Australis – rather dimmer than its northern counterpart, and a little off our southern celestial pole. But it’s usable. (If you can see it and point to it, that’s more or less South.)

But it’s only useful to us right now. A couple of thousand years ago, we had different pole stars – and after a few millenia from now, we’ll have more new ones. 

And remember, depending on the period of history, this would be seen less as “the precession of the Earth” and more “wow, look at that star that hardly ever moves! What’s it trying to tell us?” Try imagining the number of ways that could be interpreted by fertile imaginations, and you’ll get a glimpse of how complicated things can get here.

So, reluctantly, we have to leave comfortable, reassuring deterministic reasons behind. It’s not an objective issue. It’s a relative one. North and South seem to be the way they are to us because at some point, someone decided that’s how they should be.

At last, we have arrived at the real main reason our maps point in the direction they currently do. It’s because wealthy, self-important people like to put themselves at the top of everything

Try turning a map of the world upside-down, to see what it does to your perception of the importance of every country. Look at how South America is in fact South-East America, if you flipped it round. Look at how completely Africa’s size swamps Europe’s. And look at how detached and inconsequential it makes the so-called Western World look.

World map
World map

Because of the recent global dominance of north-facing maps, this wealthy-us-looking-down bias is baked into the world mind. It’s now unthinkingly normal for many Westerners to say “up north” and “down south” (along with “out west” and “back east”, if you’re in the U.S.) – and start making unconscious social assumptions based on each. 

In many cases, “North” has become all about money and power (and religion and politics), and “South” is about a lack of those things. At least, according to the people who first had the money and power to pay for those maps to be drawn up! They were financially sponsoring that world view.

This prejudice clings on, even though many real-world exceptions to this bias now exist: for example, the United Kingdom, where we in the north are seen as the relatively mud-spattered unsophisticates.

To counteract this bias, I have a perhaps ridiculous proposal: We flip half our maps upside-down. When you cross the equator into the Southern hemisphere, you switch to an ‘upside-down’ map of what’s on the other side, so now you’re going upwards into it.

Now you’re seeing the world like the Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres García, in this deliberately provocative sketch he made in 1943. Its reorientation is a push back against prejudice, even oppression. As this article says, “it isn’t too much of a stretch to think that people are less likely to care what happens in countries or regions that are ‘lower’ than them on the map or globe.”

And maybe that also goes for feelings of national self-worth. Is it fair for any country to be geographically regarded as “the lowest of the low,” as Chile, Argentina and Australia are? How would a south-upwards map of the “bottom half” of the world change the way we treat each other and see ourselves?

It might be fun to find out!

If you want to discover majestic, inspiring and entirely-correctly-oriented Egypt for yourself, join us in February Or November 2024 for a classic cruise through one of the most archaeologically exciting and hauntingly beautiful landscapes on Earth.

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